Crisis with Germany: Is it about Erdoğan or does it go deeper?

Crisis with Germany: Is it about Erdoğan or does it go deeper?

In an interview with the German Zeit on the first week of July, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said he had no problem with German Chancellor Angela Merkel but missed the years when Germany was led by Gerhard Schroeder.

Personal chemistry matters. When Merkel came to power in 2005, Erdoğan was seen as the rising star in Europe. Merkel even then never had a taste for him. When it came to Turkey, she made clear that she was against its membership to the European Union. We could perhaps say that her pragmatism and Germany’s interests weighed over her inner feelings and unlike France (and maybe because of France) Berlin did not block accession talks. And Merkel did not hesitate to strike a refugee deal with Erdoğan in 2015 even when Erdoğan had become the most unpopular leader in Europe.

By 2010 Turkish democrats started ringing alarm bells, fearing for the future of democracy in Turkey. It took a couple of more years for the liberals who fiercely supported the Justice and Development Party (AKP) to desert the party and its leader. Erdoğan continued to enjoy popularity in Europe well after 2010, especially as he was seen courageous enough to challenge the military’s grip on political power; through legal cases which were later understood to be plots by Gülenists. Turkish democrats were astonished to see Europe remained silent to the democratic backsliding in Turkey.

It is, however, not the erosion of democracy in Turkey but the Arab Spring that became the turning point in relations between the West and Erdoğan. With the turmoil in Libya, Egypt and the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the West concluded that it was better to continue with Muslim dictators and tyrants than tempt a chance with moderate Islamists.

Is the deterioration of relations with Germany following the same trend? I am not sure. What I know is that the Turkish establishment has been wary of the German state’s approach toward the Turks living in the country. Turkish officials, whether right or wrong, have been suspicious of a tendency of assimilation rather than integration. 

There is no doubt that the respect and appreciation Turkey and Erdoğan enjoyed in the world throughout the 2000’s have boosted the self-confidence of Turks living in Europe. The huge interest shown to Erdoğan during his visits to Europe may have not been welcome so enthusiastically by the host countries. Especially when Erdoğan’s messages told Turks to not allow their Turkish identities to erode were perceived as an obstacle to integration. “Germans cannot cope with the fact that so many Turks living in Germany are so supportive of Erdoğan,” a retired Turkish ambassador had told me. 

Erdoğan and the AKP government could live with Germans’ displeasure of the fact that so many Turks living in Germany adore Erdoğan. But the July 15, 2016, coup attempt has been a turning point in the government’s outlook toward Germany. Erdoğan and the security apparatus discern hostility in Germany’s lack of sensitivity to the fight against the Gülenist network. 

Having said all of that, nothing justifies the course of action the government has endorsed to get back at Germany. Holding journalists and human rights defenders hostage on what so far appears to be flimsy accusations cannot bring about the desired result as far as Germany is concerned. Turkey's conduct in the crisis with Germany has reached scandalous dimensions.

But Germans need to think about two points as well: When it comes to Gülenists, is the enemy of my enemy a friend? When it comes to Turks living in Germany, is the devotion to one man a temporary or permanent phenomenon? 

In short, is the problem deeper than one man?